Not enough oxygen to sustain this NASA space tale

Review Novel


Challenger Park

Stephen Harrigan

Alfred A. Knopf / 300 pages / $24.95

Sometimes authenticity is a bad thing. Stephen Harrigan's Challenger Park is a case in point.

Harrigan, talented author of the brilliant historical novel The Gates of the Alamo, now brings us this lukewarm tale of a shuttle astronaut in training, in angst, in love and, finally, in space, which seems like blessed relief until that, too, grows stale faster than you can say Beta Gimbal Assembly - one of the zillion examples of NASA-speak cluttering the narrative.

The shame of it all is that, sentence by sentence, Harrigan is still a master of his craft. He is utterly convincing, for example, in describing the sensation of weightlessness. He also nails what it must be like to live in a space station day after day after day. The problem is that living in a space station day after day after day is a crashing bore, which is one reason this novel never achieves orbit.

As presented by Harrigan, the hermetically sealed world of the NASA astronauts and their trainers is a blandosphere of geekspeak, acronyms, monotonous routines and extremely careful people. After work, it doesn't get much better. Everyone drives home through gridlocked traffic to the cookie-cutter suburbs of Greater Houston, where life proceeds to the drone of Texas-worthy air conditioning. When a crew gets cracking in its training sessions, there are MPS/TVC ISOL valves to close, APU shutdowns to perform, and Assigned Crew Study Guides to, well, study. That leaves it up to the human beings to save us from drowning in banality, and they aren't much help.

Harrigan builds his plot around astronaut Lucy Kincheloe, whose three greatest hopes are to someday fly in space, to lovingly protect her children despite being away for long periods, and to rediscover passion despite a chilly marriage to another astronaut, Brian, aka the world's most self-absorbed man (from Lucy's poisonous point of view, at least, which soon wears thin). Lucy's quest for love leads her into the arms - or more often, merely the thoughts - of Walt Womack, the fellow in charge of her mission training. Walt is a grieving widower and, like most of the characters in this book, he broods a lot. He spends much of his free time either hanging out in his featureless apartment or grabbing a bland dinner from a bland buffet line. Onward drones the air conditioner.

With a few welcome exceptions, Walt and Lucy's suborbital soap opera generates all the warmth of fluorescent tubing. If you are looking for the inside skinny on how shuttle simulator training sessions really look, sound and proceed, then you will be fascinated by much of this book. If not, you may find yourself wanting to skip ahead.

When Lucy finally reaches space, the action and drama are genuine and well-rendered. You're right on board with her, awe-stricken and disoriented, and at times quite scared. But far too soon, these moments give way to the humdrum of routine. It doesn't help that the astronauts often speak like robots. In a phone call back to Earth after surviving a disastrous spacewalk, Lucy tells her 7-year-old son, "We had a little problem during the EVA today." That's right. Lucy has just drifted through the cosmos with only a spacesuit to protect her, floating on a tether as the shimmering Earth glided beneath her in the vastness of the universe, and she describes it to her bright young son as "the EVA," an acronym for "extra-vehicular activity." Instant Novocain.

But it is not the technobabble, per se, that is the problem. The film Apollo 13 had plenty of the stuff, yet it radiated with dramatic intensity and taut emotion. There is no reason a book shouldn't do the same. So what happened to Challenger Park, then?

I have a theory - perhaps lame - as to why Harrigan came up short. In writing about the Alamo, he dug deep to research his characters, their time and their place. He then leaped from his hard-won authority into a magnificent flight of fancy, letting his imagination energize and color all he had learned.

In Challenger Park, Harrigan seems to have worked just as hard to master the material. But this time, much of his research involved live interviews instead of dead texts, and his prose reads as if he could never quite shake the idea of all those people watching over his shoulder as he wrote. It seems telling that, in a preface, Harrigan asks forgiveness for his "elaborate fictional distortions" of the real shuttle mission on which he patterned the book's.

When a novelist begins apologizing for his powers of invention, he has become too careful for his own good. Maybe he was haunted by that old Joan Didion quote: "Writers are always selling somebody out." Whatever the case, his authenticity is stripped of vigor. The possibility of a more satisfying novel seems to lurk beneath every page but never breaks free.

Dan Fesperman, a Sun reporter currently on leave, is a novelist whose next book, "The Prisoner of Guantanamo," will be published in July.

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